Kosher­soul: The Faith and Food Jour­ney of an African Amer­i­can Jew

By – August 15, 2022

Michael Twit­ty is a renowned culi­nary his­to­ri­an and edu­ca­tor. He research­es, recon­structs, and pre­serves cook­ing prac­tices and food tra­di­tions, inter­twin­ing his explo­rations with the study of cul­tur­al his­to­ry and geneal­o­gy. In his first book, the James Beard Award – win­ning The Cook­ing Gene, he explored his own ances­try through a com­bi­na­tion of genealog­i­cal research and his­tor­i­cal­ly-informed cook­ing. All of Twitty’s work — his exca­va­tions, his writ­ings, and his teach­ings — are ground­ed in his expe­ri­ences as a Black, gay, Jew­ish per­son who loves food and believes in its power.

In the ear­ly stages of writ­ing Kosher­soul, his newest book about African Jew­ish cook­ing and iden­ti­ty, Twit­ty was told he was not writ­ing about Black food, but about Jew­ish food. No,” he respond­ed. This is a book about a part of Black food that’s also Jew­ish food; this is a book about Jew­ish food that’s also Black food because it’s a book about Black peo­ple who are Jew­ish and Jew­ish peo­ple who are Black.” And with this force­ful asser­tion — one that we learn Twit­ty has been made to repeat again and again—Kosher­soul begins.

Twitty’s book is a record of lives lived and meals cooked. Through a com­bi­na­tion of inter­views, oral his­to­ries, per­son­al anec­dotes, recipes, his­to­ry, and advice, he details the ways that Black and Jew­ish food tra­di­tions per­ceived to be dis­parate have over­lapped, influ­enced, and mir­rored one anoth­er through­out his­to­ry. He writes of how dias­poric liv­ing, migra­tion, oppres­sion, mar­gin­al­iza­tion, and move­ment shapes food.

As Twit­ty makes clear, label­ing any­thing as Black or Jew­ish is not so straight­for­ward. While per­son­al­ly spe­cif­ic, these labels are capa­cious and con­tain vast his­to­ries. Such nuance pos­es a prob­lem of sorts for Twit­ty, who states that while he set out to open up an entire world of Black Jews mix­ing up foods from both worlds,” he did not quite find the recog­ni­tion and affir­ma­tion from oth­ers that he’d been look­ing for.

Through­out the book, Twit­ty tran­scribes inter­views with oth­er thinkers, Jew­ish, Black, and/​or queer, who are also think­ing through iden­ti­ty and food. Lists of ingre­di­ents and dish­es sit along­side sto­ries of aggres­sions both micro and macro, as well as accounts of moments when Twit­ty felt seen as a Black Jew. He gives his­tor­i­cal con­text for var­i­ous dish­es, explains the racism, priv­i­lege, and oppres­sion that live in the his­to­ries of what we eat, and in one com­pelling chap­ter traces the migra­tion of West­ern Sephardic Jews, out­lin­ing the cul­tur­al expan­sion that occurred as a result of the influ­ence of West and Cen­tral African and Afro-Caribbean culi­nary tra­di­tions. The book ends with recipes and meal sug­ges­tions, mouth­wa­ter­ing col­lages of dif­fer­ent folks’ per­fect Shab­bat din­ners, and guid­ance for how to shape one’s own cul­tur­al­ly informed food practices.

It’s a lot to fit into one text, and on top of the breadth of sub­ject mat­ter, there is noth­ing pat, easy, or straight­for­ward about the con­nec­tions being drawn. Twit­ty doesn’t pre­tend oth­er­wise; but with­out a nar­ra­tive arc, and with many chap­ters pre­sent­ed in dif­fer­ent for­mats, the book can be hard to hold onto. Nonethe­less, it is a heart­felt doc­u­men­ta­tion and cel­e­bra­tion of the lives of a peo­ple diverse but still mish­pocheh. Still kin. Still family.

Kosher­soul is Twitty’s joy- and pain-filled asser­tion that he and the many oth­ers liv­ing and cook­ing at the com­pli­cat­ed, vibrant inter­sec­tion of Black and Jew­ish are here and always have been. Hineni,” he writes. I am here.”

Discussion Questions

Kosher­Soul explores the con­nec­tions between the Jew­ish and African dias­po­ras over spe­cif­ic touch­points, such as iden­ti­ty and food, while mak­ing a case that not only are the two com­mu­ni­ties not so dif­fer­ent from one anoth­er, but also that their links in cui­sine and iden­ti­ty high­light a deep­er con­nec­tive tis­sue than any­one ever thought pos­si­ble. This eye-open­ing book includes con­ver­sa­tions with peo­ple from dif­fer­ent demo­graph­ics with­in both com­mu­ni­ties, along with deep dives into the­ol­o­gy, iden­ti­ty, and, of course, food, allow­ing read­ers to reex­am­ine how they think about the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty and giv­ing them per­mis­sion and impe­tus to reflect on their her­itage and reli­gion in a new way.